Flags Fade but Love StaysMay 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By R. Bud Voorhees
I take a few more steps through the wet, short grass and turn around to look at the valley stretching north before me toward Marshlands, a tiny community along Pine Creek between Gaines and Galeton. I reflect briefly on the dozens of little stories I’ve heard throughout my lifetime, stories that played out in this very valley over the last 100-plus years. It’s my own story today, though. I am here to fulfill a promise I made to a great-aunt more than a quarter of a century ago. I smile to myself and grab a handful of tools I’ll need for the next hour or two. It’s a joy to be back again.
Aunt Wanda was my maternal grandmother’s youngest sister. For years she had come to this very spot, the Elk Run Cemetery, to fulfill a promise of her own—tending to the grave sites of her parents, siblings, and her first husband.
Aunt Wanda was in her eighties when I made the promise—still getting around, driving her own car, doing her own shopping, calling on friends and family, and attending church without fail. But things were changing fast for her. Shortly after she was widowed for the second time, Aunt Wanda adopted Muggins, a fluffy, snuggly little poodle mix. One morning as they were headed out for a walk, the little guy bounded to the end of his leash then followed it around in a circle and around Aunt Wanda. Her next step would be her last for six weeks. She fell to the ground and broke her leg.
When my wife, Kay, and our children, Melissa, then ten, and Chad, eight, came calling on her one Sunday afternoon, post-accident, Aunt Wanda, delighted as always, had a couple of big favors to ask.
“Buddy, would you help me find a new home for Muggins?”
“Well sure,” I said, thinking we could ask around and, if need be, take the rascal to the SPCA (I didn’t say that aloud).
“Melissa and Chad, maybe you’d like to take Muggins?” Aunt Wanda suggested.
“Yeahhh,” they said in uncharacteristic agreement. I found myself sucking air; we most always discuss such things for days, if not weeks, before deciding on major changes to our family (Muggins did find a home with us, however).
“Would you do another favor?” Aunt Wanda continued. “I don’t know when I will get to drive again—maybe never. (I had wondered whether she should have been driving.) I won’t be able to decorate the family grave site anymore, and since you already tend to your Dad’s, would you please consider taking that over for me? You know that lilac bush next to my sisters’ sites needs to be cut back or maybe cut down. Would you please do that for me?”
Aunt Wanda was right. That bush, just a few yards from Dad’s site, was an overgrown mess, and I’d had a hankering to prune it down to something more manageable and attractive. Since Kay and I had been, for the past two years, decorating Dad’s final resting place right before Memorial Day, we figured it wouldn’t take much longer to tidy up these few other sites at that time. We agreed to take on the family plots.
Fast forward twenty-five or so years. It’s nearly Memorial Day, it’s forty degrees, and it’s raining. At my feet is the plaque that bears my father’s name, Laverne C. Voorhees, his military rank, his date of birth, and date of death. There is no mention of his lifelong nickname—Porky (a reference to his possible resemblance to an Our Gang movie character). Next, a quick glance at Mom’s plaque. It bears her name but not her remains, but that’s another story. That is the first pinch I will feel this afternoon.
The entire cemetery has recently been mowed. I use a battery trimmer to tidy up close to the markers while Kay places flowers at the bases of family headstones. I head to the far end of the family row to place the last of the flowers. I stop at my great-great-great grandparents’ markers, trying to imagine what may have led them to Marshlands. Next to them, double great-grandparents, then a sibling of my great-grandmother, Carrie Wood Ripley. A flowering bush nearly engulfs that stone, and I see a faded flag in a rusty marker bearing the letters GAR. That’s the abbreviation for Grand Army of the Republic—a fraternal organization of Union Army Civil War veterans. There were new flags on other veteran’s gravesites, but this hidden one was missed. Today I have no pruning shears—I’ll trim it another time. As I walk that long line of markers back to the car, I stop at sites of family I personally knew, recalling some special memory for each: Aunt Sue Gilmer, Great-Uncle Tom and Aunt Bessie Gilmer, Great-Grandpa Sam and Great-Grandma Carrie Ripley, Uncle Jay and Aunt Viva Ripley, Uncle Basil and Aunt Wanda McCracken, Uncle Sid and Aunt Edna Fenton, Uncle Arnold and Aunt Wilda Whipple, Grandpa Harry and Grandma Margaret Moore, Great-Grandpa John and Grandma Sarah Shaddle.
Lastly, Dad and Mom—Laverne and Marilyn Voorhees. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for your love of Christ, untiring love for us, your guidance, your counsel, and your love of music, which has served me well in times of joy, sorrow, anxiety, depression, and celebration.
I turn to walk the last few steps to the car, wiping my eyes, blowing my nose. Kay asks if there were any headstones we missed. I open my mouth, but my voice just won’t serve me yet.
As always, this was a power-packed hour of great memories. It was a walk among my genealogy, my family, not just names in a book or on a stone.
It’s a joy to be back again.